July 17, 2007
Collective Coping: Fan Communities Deal with Tragedy

I have written here on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium blog (see here and here) about issues surrounding Chris Benoit's shocking double-murder and suicide last month and the continued fallout from his horrendous actions.

One aspect of the story that has amazed me is the way that fans banded together to help one another through several stages of grief, first at the knowledge of losing a performer who most fans greatly respected and had always heard good things about, only to find out hours later that this heralded athlete had murdered his family and then killed himself. The conflicted feelings fans had of not only losing one of their favorite performers, but also finding out the awful truth about the man's final actions, have been hard for fans to handle, as well as the aftermath of this tragedy, leaving fans with a lot of soul-searching themselves in many cases.

As the issue continues to pervade media coverage and get tied into larger conversations that extend beyond the Benoit tragedy, wrestling fans continue to process and cope with how to move past this tragic news, especially when many wrestling fans have friendship built around the shared media text.

Dr. Laury Silvers directed me toward this conversation which follows, in real-time, one particular wrestling community's attempt to cope with this news as it slowly progressed. An in-depth case study could probably glean a lot of insight on the nature of these communities and how they are useful in times of tragedy.

The conversation, which stretches on for 97 pages, demonstrates a fan community's ability to effectively gather information and put together the best picture of what is happening as early as possible, but also the emotional strain, and the ways in which groups copy with it, that this type of tragedy involves.

Interestingly, while people were quite torn by the Benoit story as it continued to unfold, there were constant reminders and pointers back to the way the board came together for a non-wrestling tragedy back in 2001, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States (available here. For fans, the discussion of the Benoit tragedy--just like the way the board came together and both processed news and supported one another (even when there was some tension involved)--was a source of pride, a bright spot in the face of a terrible event.

Perhaps this demonstrates one of the most positive aspects of a community, that one can take pride in sharing grief or trauma with others, even as you are devastated. The Wrestling Classics community members have been able to support one another in a time of great stress on dedicated pro wrestling fans, and their social community on that site has become an important part of their life in the process.

I have written about collective mourning in fan communities in the past, such as with the death of respected soap opera performer Benjamin Hendrickson of As the World Turns fame. For more on these types of fan behaviors, see those posts from July 2006 here and here.